Twelve round of 32, Sweet 16 match-ups we crave

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The NCAA tournament is the greatest event in the modern sports calendar. Other postseasons, from the professional ranks to the BCS, are facile when compared to the NCAAs, a tournament with a level of complexity unseen in any other championship setting. Not only do teams have to prep for their first-round opponent, they also have to additionally gameplan for the two teams they may face should they win, contests that happen as short as 48 hours in the future.

Save the 16-1 games, it is hard to predict the other 63 outcomes. While we love those first round games, and have highlighted which ones have attained ‘must see’ status, here are twelve round of 32 and Sweet 16 match-ups we hope materialize in the coming weeks.

MORE: The Dummy’s Guide to filling out a bracket

ROUND OF 32

The winner of No. 5 VCU/No. 12 Stephen F. Austin vs. the winner of No. 4 UCLA/No. 13 Tulsa — South — March 23

This is a great pod, including one squad contending for this year’s ‘Florida Gulf Coast’ distinction (Stephen F. Austin), three teams that like to run (Tulsa, UCLA, and VCU all use 68-plus possessions), and an offense (the Bruins) which thoroughly embarrassed the nation’s stingiest defense. All four programs also sport defensive turnover rates that rank within Ken Pomeroy’s top fifty, and whichever two teams advance to the second round game will engage in an up-tempo, steal-laden affair, so we humbly beseech the assigned officiating crew to swallow their whistles and let those two teams play.

No. 2 Villanova vs. No. 10 Saint Joseph’s — East — March 22

When Villanova traveled roughly seven miles to play Saint Joseph’s in early December, the game’s final score, a 30-point thumping by the Wildcats, gave little indication both teams might meet again in the postseason. However, St. Joe’s is brimming with offensive confidence following their Atlantic 10 tournament title. Langston Galloway (57.5 percent from three during the conference tournament) and Halil Kanacevic (back-to-back double doubles against St. Bonaventure and VCU) are carrying a team that is finally living up to the potential expected of the Hawks a year ago, and freshman DeAndre Bembry could be one of the tournament’s breakout stars. This game could be a classic Big Fiv … er … tourney tilt.

PREVIEWS: East Region | South Region | Midwest Region | West Region

No. 2 Kansas vs. No. 7 New Mexico — South — March 23

Sure, everyone is waiting for New Mexico to again break hearts and exit the tournament early for the second straight season, but UNM has a massive chip on its collective shoulder this year. New Mexico was comically underseeded — apparently beating San Diego State twice (including in the Mountain West title game) and Cincinnati during non-conference play was insignificant to the selection committee — and has one league player of the year (Kendal Williams, 16.4 ppg) and one player of the year snub (Cameron Bairstow, 20.3 ppg). Similarly to last year’s team, UNM continues to relish paint touches, but the current Lobo iteration actually makes those interior looks (51.8 percent, as opposed to 46.1 in 2013). It is unclear whether Kansas big Joel Embiid (8.1 rpg, 2.6 bpg) has recovered from his back injury and will play, a development that could drastically hamper KU’s efforts. While Kansas’ efficiency ratings haven’t budged much without the freshman center, opponents are grabbing 69 percent of KU’s misses (up from 62 percent with Embiid in Big 12 play) and the Jayhawks still struggle to defend without fouling.

No. 1 Arizona vs. the winner of No. 8 Gonzaga/No. 9 Oklahoma State — West — March 23

It is too difficult to pick which match-up we’d like to see more, so we’ll describe both! Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart (17.8 ppg) is in the midst of playing himself back into the hearts of NBA GMs, and a strong showing against the Wildcats could springboard Smart into consideration for a lottery pick. Gonzaga, and particularly its bigs, presents defensive problems for Arizona. Sam Dower (15 ppg, 7.1 rpg) thrives on pick and pop jumpers, and consistently knocks down twos from 10 to 15 feet out, an ability which should create halfcourt spacing for Zaga’s talented guards. The head-to-head potential for TJ McConnnell (Arizona) and Kevin Pangos (Gonzaga) would also be a highlight of a Zona-Zags match-up.

No. 3 Creighton vs. No. 6 Baylor — West — March 23

Baylor recovered from a midseason swoon — the Bears lost two of eight over the course of a month — to reach the Big 12 tournament final, and as neither team plays much defense, this game would be decided by whichever squad scores more points. Baylor’s defense enabled conference opponents to score 1.08 points per possessions, likely the worst defensive efficiency rate of any power six conference at-large team, and though Creighton’s Doug McDermott (26.9 ppg) still needs 500 or so points to catch career scoring leader Pete Maravich, he might come close to the record while playing the Bears. Teams dependent on three-point production typically do very well against Baylor — Scott Drew’s squad allows league opponents to convert nearly 40 percent from beyond the arc — and the Bluejays might also set some shooting records in San Antonio. Kenny Cherry is key for Baylor — the guard, and his 35 percent assist rate (ranked eighteenth nationally), is extremely underrated.

MORE: 8 teams that can win it all | TV times | Bracket contest

No. 3 Syracuse vs. No. 6 Ohio State — South — March 22

Both Ohio State and Syracuse are in dire need of redemption. At certain points of the season, the two programs were considered shoo-ins for the Final Four, and now both have many question marks. Since the Cuse started the year with a 25-0 record, they have lost four of six (which doesn’t include their opening ACC tournament loss), but the presence of freshman Tyler Ennis (12.7 ppg, 5.6 apg) and C.J. Fair (16.7 ppg) cannot be discounted. The Buckeyes nearly made the Big Ten tournament final, and appear to have righted themselves, but how far can a stellar defense carry a suspect offense? Even if this game is decided well before the final buzzer, the match-up of Aaron Craft against Ennis will be satisfying.

No. 3 Iowa State vs. No. 6 North Carolina — East — March 23

Fans of fast-breaks — which, aren’t we all? — will love this pairing. The Cyclones and Tar Heels are listed thirteenth and eighteenth, respectively, in Pomeroy’s tempo rankings, and we again hope the officiating crew lets this contest play out. As expected for two teams that each use more than 70 possessions per game, both are led by stellar backcourts, including UNC’s Marcus Paige, a 6-foot-1 guard who takes an equal amount of twos (49 percent of his 200 attempts) and threes (39.1 percent of his 202 attempts), and DeAndre Kane, a Cyclones guard who plays basketball like a running back, ping-ponging off defenders until finishing at the rim.

No. 4 San Diego State vs. No. 12 North Dakota State — West — March 22

Of all the NBA prospects in this year’s tournament field, North Dakota State’s Taylor Braun is the most interesting. The 6-foot-7 forward is the prototypical stretch-4, primarily operating within the arc (51 percent from two) but possessing the capability to convert from the perimeter (42.2 percent from deep). Since San Diego State is one of the tourney’s stingiest teams, how Braun fares against a defense which easily handcuffs an opposing player’s scoring will be closely monitored.

SWEET 16

No. 1 Wichita State vs. No. 4 Louisville — Midwest

It is universally agreed that Wichita State received the toughest draw of any number one seed in recent memory, and it isn’t a foregone conclusion that the Shockers will even reach the second weekend, but if Gregg Marshall’s squad does face Louisville, the rematch of last year’s Final Four will be entertaining. This is a much stronger Shocker squad — Fred VanVleet (5.3 apg) is a pass-first point guard propelling a more offensively efficient team (1.15 PPP, as compared to 1.07 in 2013) — and one used to the Cardinals’ trademark defensive intensity. Louisville shouldn’t have been a top seed, but like New Mexico, UL was unfairly underseeded. The improved play from Montrezl Harrell (61.4 percent from two), Luke Hancock (32 percent from three since February 1st), and the continued stellar offensive performance from Russ Smith (52 percent from two, 41 percent from three, and an assist rate of 32 percent) could prove a challenging match-up for WSU’s grinding and physical defense.

No. 1 Florida vs. No. 4 UCLA — South

Much like the Pac-12 final, this contest would pair a top-rated defense against an otherworldly offense. UCLA’s Kyle Anderson (14.9 ppg, 8.8 rpg) has proven to be arguably the nation’s most challenging cover, but Florida coach Billy Donovan has numerous options at his disposal to blank Anderson, including the uber-athletic Casey Prather and Michael Frazier II.

No. 3 Duke vs. No. 2 Michigan — Midwest
A rematch from earlier this season, Duke was able to easily dispatch the Wolverines and their ridiculously efficient offense. However, UM has made some subtle tweaks to further offensive production — for starters, Nik Stauskas (17.5 ppg) has left the corner and now plays more on the ball; Caris LeVert, the team’s best iso option, now attempts the third highest percentage of shots — and despite their performance in the Big Ten tournament final, reprising this non-conference tilt could result in a Sweet 16 classic.

No 1. Arizona vs. No. 4 San Diego State — West

Highly ranked defenses combined with world class athletes who thrive both in transition and in the halfcourt. This game fills all the requirements for a GOAT Sweet 16 match-up. The defining match-up could be SDSU’s Josh Davis against the Wildcats’ frontcourt. Davis went from severely underrated at Tulane to now the Aztecs’ interior anchor, so while his efficiency has slipped (which isn’t a knock on Davis — he just gets fewer touches than he did at Tulane), his ability to battle with Kaleb Tarczewski and Aaron Gordon will help deflect defensive pressure and haul in crucial additional possessions.

The Seven Biggest Final Four Storylines

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1. Gonzaga’s chance to win a national title: To me, this is the most fascinating part of the Final Four, and it’s not because Gonzaga needs to win to make the statement that they are an elite college basketball program. I don’t believe that to be true or a fair assessment of what they are right now. The Zags are a perennial top 15 team, they’ve reached 19 straight NCAA tournaments and won in 16 in those 19 dances, they recruit McDonald’s All-Americans that are talented enough to go one-and-done and they currently start an All-American point guard that began his career playing for arch-rival Washington.

They’re doing just fine.

What would make this story so incredible is the rags-to-riches ride that Gonzaga is on. 25 years ago, Gonzaga was thought of as the worst job in the WCC. They don’t have a natural recruiting base — Spokane is basically in Idaho, it ain’t Seattle — and there weren’t facilities in place to set that program apart from any other in the league. They didn’t reach an NCAA tournament until 1995, but by 1999 they were in the Elite 8, they reached the Sweet 16 in back-to-back years after that, and the rest is history. They went from a high school gym to an arena that holds 6,000 people and is a bucket-list destination for all college hoops fans. They went from not having a weight room to chartering flights for recruiting trips.

They went from the bottom of Division I to the pinnacle of the sport. Completing that journey with a national title would only be fitting.

2. North Carolina’s redemption run, Roy Williams one of the greatest ever?: One year ago, North Carolina was on the receiving end of one of the most soul-crushing title game defeats ever. In any sport. To erase a 10-point deficit in the final five minutes against Villanova, hitting a miracle three with 4.7 seconds left to tie the game, only to have it disappear with one Kris Jenkins jumper is brutal.

But the Tar Heels, despite losing Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, are right back in the Final Four as the favorite to win the title. And if they do win, it may be time to start calling Roy Williams one of the greatest college basketball coaches of all-time. As in top five. Think about it like this: If Roy cuts down the nets again, he’ll have won three national titles in a 12-year span and become one of just six men — John Wooden, Mike Krzyzewski, Adolph Rupp, Jim Calhoun, Bob Knight — to win that many rings and one of just three to do so in the modern era of college basketball, since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

He’s won eight ACC titles in the last 14 years compared to Coach K’s three. He’s been to five Final Fours in the last 14 years and nine total, the fourth-most of all-time. Most think of Williams as a coach that just rolls the ball out there, but maybe it’s time we starting giving him credit for being one of the greatest to ever do it.

3. Frank Martin has South Carolina in the Final Four: While Gonzaga is the mid-major program in this Final Four, the “outsider” so to speak, the program that doesn’t belong here is South Carolina. The Gamecocks have little to no basketball history to speak. This is just their fifth Final Four since 1974. Prior to this season, they had never won back-to-back games in the NCAA tournament. They lucked into Frank Martin because this was a comfortable landing spot when he wanted out of Kansas State because he didn’t get along with his boss.

And now Martin, who is an underdog in his own right, is just two games away from winning a national title. Who would’ve thought that any of that was possible?

4. West Coast is back!: For the first time since 2008, we have a team from went of the central time zone playing in the Final Four; two, actually. That also means that we may end up getting our first national champion that’s further west than Kansas since Arizona won the title in 1997. Mike Bibby was the point guard of that team. His son was a freshman at South Florida this year. It’s been a while.

5. Dana Altman’s handling of the Oregon rape case: Altman probably should have been fired three years ago. The basics: days before the start of the Pac-12 tournament, three Oregon players — Brandon Austin, Damyean Dotson and Dominic Artis — were accused of sexual assault by a female student at the university. Two of those players played in the Pac-12 and NCAA tournaments, although Altman claimed he did not know details of the investigation — the allegations, the accused, etc. — only that there was an investigation, so he did not suspended his players.

Two months later, the graphic details of the allegations were released in a police report, and the three players were dismissed from the program. It also should be noted here than Austin was brought into the program despite having a previous sexual assault allegation hanging over his head, a fact that Altman also claimed ignorance of.

Altman will be asked about this.

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6. The one-and-done factories aren’t in the Final Four: Duke got bounced in the second round. UCLA and Arizona lost in the Sweet 16. Kentucky and Kansas went out in the Elite 8. Markelle Fultz, Dennis Smith Jr. and Jarrett Allen didn’t make the tournament. Miles Bridges and Jonathan Isaac lost in the first weekend and no one thought much of it. Given just how loaded this freshmen class was, i’s a pretty surprising result that there are no one-and-done stars in the Final Four.

There are a couple of freshmen that may have the opportunity to turn pro this spring — Gonzaga’s Zach Collins and North Carolina’s Tony Bradley — but those two played their way into being potential first round picks coming off the bench. They weren’t recruited as one-and-dones.

What does this say about the one-and-done culture?

Probably nothing beyond the fact that Kentucky lost on a buzzer-beater and Kansas played like Kansas State against Oregon. But it is worth noting.

7. Can North Carolina win a title while waiting for the NCAA to rule on them?: This is probably going to end up being the elephant in the room every time that Roy Williams steps up to the podium to speak this week. As you are probably well aware, the UNC athletic department has been mired in a scandal involving fake classes that helped keep athletes eligible for what feels like a decade. Due to legal battles regarding the Notice of Allegations, the case has been pushed back and pushed back and pushed back again. At this point, I think that the sun will burn out and Jim Boeheim will retire before we actually get an answer here.

Here’s the better question: If Williams wins a title this season, will this be his curtain call?

Kentucky fans flood Facebook page of official John Higgins’ company with negative reviews

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Unhappy with how John Higgins performed at his part-time job, Kentucky fans did their best trash him at his full-time gig.

The Facebook page of the referee’s Omaha-based roofing company was flooded by Big Blue Nation with negative comments and reviews after they were displeased with the official’s work in the Wildcats’ Elite Eight loss to North Carolina.

Not only did fans leave obviously fake and vulgar comments on the page, they also deluged it with one-star reviews to drive down its average significantly.

Once again, the Internet is struck by its proportionality problem. What could be considered a silly bit of online pranking by a small minority suddenly turns into an avalanche of nastiness that could do real damage to someone’s life, business and family, given the importance of social media for companies in 2017. It becomes cruel when it reaches a level like this.

When there’s so many general complaints about the state of officiating in college basketball, it’s also not helpful to do something like this to one of the referees generally considered to be one of the country’s best. It’s not exactly a glowing endorsement for prospective future officials to follow the career path if it brings this level of negative attention to you off the court.

Report: North Carolina to miss out on NCAA events through 2022 if HB2 not addressed by Thursday

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North Carolina is in danger of losing out on hosting NCAA events through 2022 if the state does not make changes to HB2, the controversial so-called “bathroom bill” by Thursday afternoon, according to the leader of the Greater Raleigh Sports Alliance.

“I have confirmed with a contact very close to the NCAA that its deadline for HB2 is 48 hours from now,” Scott Dupree, the head of the Greater Raleigh Sports Alliance, said, according to the Raleigh News & Observer. “If HB2 has not been resolved by that time, the NCAA will have no choice but to move forward without the North Carolina bids.”

“The NCAA has already delayed the bid review process once and has waited as long as it possibly can, and now it must finalize all championship site selections through spring of 2022.”

The NCAA, as it reminded North Carolina last week, is making its determinations on hosts for events from 2018-2022 this week. There was movement last week at the North Carolina statehouse for a compromise on the bill, but that apparently stalled out, the News & Observer reported, though there remain efforts to make progress on a pact.

Should lawmakers not reach an agreement in time, the state’s flagship basketball programs will be without an NCAA tournament home-court advantage that they have often enjoyed. HB2 just this past year moved the first and second rounds out of the state and to South Carolina, where No. 2 seed Duke lost to the seventh-seeded Gamecocks in their home state.

Clearly, there’s much more to consider here than NCAA tournament implications, but it’s another reminder of the economic impact the bill has made in North Carolina. This week, The Associated Press estimated it will cost the state $3.76 billion over a 12-year period.

Baylor’s Freeman to graduate and transfer

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Baylor is losing one of its contributors over the past three seasons.

Al Freeman, a 6-foot-3 guard, will graduate and transfer to another school, the Bears announced Tuesday.

“Al has been a tremendous student-athlete and made great contributions to our program over the last four years, and we’re thrilled that he’s going to complete his degree at Baylor,” Bears coach Scott Drew said in a statement. “He’ll always be part of the Baylor family, and we’ll be rooting for him as he continues his career.”

Freeman, who redshirted his freshman year due to a broken wrist, started 57 games during his career in Waco and averaged 8.6 points and 2.6 rebounds per game. He was a full-time starter as a sophomore, but made just 22 this past season and saw his minutes slashed.

As a graduate transfer, the Charlotte native will be immediately eligible at his next program for his final collegiate season.

Xavier sophomore Edmond Sumner declares for NBA Draft

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Xavier sophomore Edmond Sumner has declared for the NBA Draft and is expected to sign with an agent.

“First let me start by saying these three years at Xavier have been the best of my life,” Sumner said in a statement. “I have certainly been presented with some ups and downs but they have only served to make me a stronger person. This decision was very hard for me because of the love I have for X. After weighing my options with my family, I have decided to enter the 2017 NBA Draft, fulfilling a lifelong dream. I want to thank Coach Mack and the rest of the staff for believing in me and giving me a chance when no one did! I’ll always be grateful for that. Xavier Nation I will always love you!”

Sumner, a 6-foot-6 point guard with dynamic athleticism and first round potential that averaged 15.0 points, but he is coming off of a torn ACL that he suffered in January. He’s likely to be a second round pick in this year’s NBA Draft.

This is a big loss for the Musketeers, but it’s one that they planned for. After his eruption last season, most expected him to put his name in the draft this season.